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'I Think It's Hard To Be A Person': Aimee Mann On Compassionate Songwriting

Aimee Mann's newest album, <em>Mental Illness</em>, is out now.
Sheryl Nields
Courtesy of the artist
Aimee Mann's newest album, Mental Illness, is out now.

Aimee Mann's music has always been characterized as melancholy. So on her new album, Mental Illness, she decided to lean into the stereotype.

"A friend of mine was asking me what the record was about," Mann says, "And I said, 'Oh, you know, my usual songs about mental illness,' kind of being glib about it. And then my other friend said, 'Maybe you should call it Mental Illness,' also being glib. It's so bald, but also accurate and funny, so it really made me laugh. And I felt like if it's making you laugh, there must be something accurate about it."

Mann spoke with NPR's Kelly McEvers about the inspirations for some of the songs on Mental Illness. Read interview highlights below, and listen to the full conversation at the audio link.

Interview Highlights

On the encounter that inspired "Patient Zero"

I met the actor Andrew Garfield at a party. I was a big fan of him, and he had just come to LA, I think to be in Spider-Man. I think he's a real artist, I think he's a very sensitive person and I worry about people like that sometimes in Los Angeles. When you're dealing with big movies and big famous people and huge studios and large sums of money — sensitive, talented people tend to get caught beneath the wheel.

And so I sort of wrote this story based on the idea of somebody coming to Hollywood and getting ground down by it, which I did feel like, captured a certain Los Angeles despair. ... The image I had was that narcissism is an infectious agent — and here comes this guy, steps off the plane, and his immune system is nonexistent to fight against that type of psychic germ.

On "Goose Snow Cone"

"Goose Snow Cone" is based on an image of a cat friend of mine named Goose. ... I saw a picture of her, and her face looked like a little snow cone, and I started writing the song with the idea that I would replace that phrase with something else. But the song sort of became a rumination on loneliness and isolation and homesickness.

On empathy and the human condition

I think it is hard to be a person. It is really hard to negotiate relationships, it's hard to negotiate loss, it's hard to have perspective on your own problems, it's hard to break out of the habits and dynamics of your childhood. ... And people aren't really naturally born with the skills to negotiate it. So I have a lot of compassion for people. Everyone's struggling in some way.

Radio editor Monika Evstatieva contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.

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